Belgrave House by David Nickless

Belgrave House has always been a caring people centred place.

It began as a home for children from London back in the early 1900’s

It was used temporarily as a hospital for wounded Belgium soldiers during the First World War and a Red Cross medical facility in the Second World War. In peace time Belgrave continued to be a children’s home.

Belgrave house was an old building of character with a maze of corridors, passageways and many large communal bedrooms. There were bathrooms and toilets on each landing.  A large glass roofed kitchen with industrial ovens, and a scullery for peeling vegetables. There was a quaint wood tiled dining hall that resembled a church, and a glass covered canopy linking the kitchen to the dining room and on to the main house.

In the early 1960’s, Belgrave was extended as the adjoining Lansdowne house, a retirement home for women, closed. This doubled the size of the building. Major renovation work was carried out to improve and update the facilities. Interior walls were demolished to extend the lounge; fire places were removed from all the rooms; the old dining hall was demolished with a plush new dining room extension and a new office block built.

Cold storage heaters were installed in all rooms. A dull ivy clad exterior was painted a bright cream colour and rooms painted in light pastel shades. Belgrave House became a modern Christian conference/ holiday centre, and a children’s home for the nineteen sixties and beyond. Guests attending the annual Easter conferences appreciated these improved facilities.

My parents, Mr and Mrs Nickless, were the Managers during this time with a dedicated team of full time staff. Gwen (Mogford), Brenda Brown, and Ethel Todd all maintained the upkeep of Belgrave House throughout the year. They were a faithful multi-skilled team cleaning rooms, changing sheets, cooking meals, caring for the children, and organising sports activities for the busy summer holiday weeks. In the summer, many volunteer staff came to stay and help out with the holidays.

At times it was like working in a hotel as guests needed help and advice as they settled in. A house with so many rooms and corridors going in all directions proved so confusing to new visitors. Many people got lost and for the first few days needed directions!

In the winter months Belgrave became a home for children from inner city areas of London.

The children came from a variety of family backgrounds and stayed for a few weeks, or months as family circumstances and funding allowed. The social services in London were pleased that they were able to take children away from families where divorce, poverty, bereavement or sickness had impaired their lives. Many of the children in the 1960’s had never seen the sea or open countryside, so this was an exciting time of discovery and adventure for them.

On arrival they were often pale, anxious, and withdrawn, but in a short period fresh sea air, exercise, good nourishing food combined with a caring Christian environment brought big changes. They returned to their families with a renewed hope and confidence.

Every summer Belgrave became a Christian holiday venue for girls aged from 8- 16 from Sunday schools, and youth groups from Brethren churches in London and the South East. They would arrive by Southdown coach from Victoria coach station and return a week later.  At the same time the boys at Climping camp would enjoy a similar holiday but without all the luxuries of indoor facilities.

These months were very busy with a varied itinerary which included outings to Arundel Park, Brighton Aquarium and to Devils Dyke. Most of the games and activities took place in the spacious grounds of Belgrave House with the sea nearby for swimming, and walks along the prom to the riverside or to local parks.

A spacious lawn surrounded by elegant Cyprus trees made an excellent area for playing games and sports.  Rounders and Crocker were very popular with lots of space for scoring a good hit. They enjoyed treasure hunts, and obstacle races. On wet days a comfortable lounge was an ideal place for playing chess, draughts, scrabble, monopoly, and table tennis in the dining hall.

Every evening after supper there was a service which included singing popular hymns, CSSM choruses, and learning new ones from a trendy Youth Praise chorus book! There was a relevant Bible talk each evening.

This would often take the theme of a Bible story or a Biblical character, i.e. Moses, Joseph, Daniel; the girls particularly enjoyed going through the life of Esther and Ruth. These stories were exciting to hear and a flannel graph brought this to life.

The girls found these services very helpful in understanding and living out the Christian life, and returned home with many happy memories. These holidays impacted their lives, and this was an encouragement to their Sunday school teachers and youth leaders back home as they discovered more about the Christian faith, and for some this was the time when they became a Christian.

The Belgrave House Trustees were active in leadership positions in their churches and they were Christian businessmen who took on this responsibility voluntarily. They brought with them wisdom and skills from their work experience which was so beneficial.  Mr Vinnicombe, Mr Horne, Mr Hudson Mr Raymond, Mr Stevens and Mr Fagg and a number of other men were some of these faithful trustees during this time.

Each month a business meeting was held in London, and with twice yearly visits to Belgrave House for a day’s committee meeting. The buildings and estate needed constant maintenance and after a busy season there was always a need to purchase new carpets, curtains, chairs, beds, rooms to be redecorated and general maintenance work. As mentioned there were large developments in the early 1960’s.

Planning and wise leadership was paramount for the effective running of the work, and to introduce important changes to keep the charitable work on track.

An Easter conference was held annually in the 1950’s and 60’s and these became popular for their Bible teaching with a number of visiting speakers. Some were missionaries including Mr Geoffrey Bull who shared his experiences of his imprisonment in China. The messages were of a devotional Easter theme. There was also opportunity for discussions on topical themes with a Biblical application.

This was a busy time for the Belgrave staff cooking meals for 80+ guests with many day visitors from local churches attending the conferences.

The South West London mobile Unit (an open air ministry team) enjoyed weekend conferences here and a number of churches and Christian groups came to Belgrave for short breaks or for weekends of teaching and fellowship.

Belgrave House also accommodated missionary groups i.e. The French Village workers were missionaries working in the industrial region of northern France and appreciated coming here to relax by the sea and to enjoy fellowship and also a German Missionary Society stayed here.

One of the highlights for Belgrave House and Climping Camp was an annual reunion which took place at the end of November. This was held at the “Spurgeons’ Metropolitan Tabernacle” in South London; an ideal place within easy reach for the majority of people who came from the London area.

This turned out to be a very busy day for the Belgrave House Staff as they left Littlehampton early in the morning loaded with bread, margarine, cheese, and all kinds of miscellaneous items for the journey up to London.

On arriving a team of willing volunteers would soon be preparing a sandwich style tea for up to 400 people. It was a daunting task but well planned.

The Metropolitan Tabernacle is a grand place with a few large halls, a stage, and a dining area. This was an ideal venue as it could accommodate a few hundred people with ease. The reunion took place every year between 1962-1968. A leaflet for the reunion held on the 9th November 1968 was advertised as a full programme of competitions with the film “The City of Bees.” This was one of the popular Fact and Faith films. Tickets were priced at 2 shillings, and could be bought from your Youth leader or direct from Belgrave House.

These reunions were exciting occasions as people met up again to chat and relive the experiences they enjoyed back in those glorious summer days. Friendship were made over the years, and many returned to Belgrave House and Climping camp for another holiday and some became group leaders.

Mr and Mrs Day took over the management of Belgrave House from Mr and Mrs Nickless in 1970 and the work continued until 1977.